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Our mate: Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti (part 3)

By Dr George Venturini

The World Health Organisation provides detailed statistics on under-5 infant mortality rates – expressed as deaths per 1000 births – and annual per capita medical expenditure for essentially every country in the world (see: http://www.who.int/en/). Using this information one can plot infant mortality rate versus annual per capita medical expenditure for Iraq and neighbouring countries. (G. Polya, ‘Iraq: Australian corruption and 20,000 Iraqi infant deaths …’, 15 February 2006; see also: G. Polya, ‘Indict the Coalition Governments’, 21 December 2005)

According to data made available by U.N.I.C.E.F. in 2006, in 2004 the under-5 infant mortality in Iraq – with a population of 28 million – was 122,000 as compared to 1,000 in Australia with a population of 20 million. A roughly 100-fold difference in annual per capita medical expenditure is reflected in a 100-fold difference in under-5 infant mortality and this horrendous, continuing war crime constitutes passive genocide.

Australian corruption has contributed directly to the carnage in Iraq. However Australia’s complicity in Coalition war crimes goes much further. United Nations reports have revealed that the post-invasion avoidable mortality in occupied Iraq – and Afghanistan – now totals 2.1 million and the post-invasion under-5 infant mortality totals 1.7 million as a result of non-provision of life-sustaining requisites by the U.S.-led Coalition in violation of the Geneva Conventions. This ongoing crime is now the subject of a formal complaint to the International Criminal Court.

On 16 February 2006 a former A.W.B. manager, Mark Emons, blew the whistle on A.W.B.’s payment of ‘kickbacks’, telling the Cole Inquiry that since at least 1999 senior executives agreed to the system which funnelled money to Saddam’s régime and that they did this knowing that it could be illegal. (P. Hemphill, ‘AWB executive Mark Emons accused of ‘skimming’, The Weekly Times, 25 November 2015)

The Inquiry would learn that a Howard Government appointee to the US-led occupation government in Iraq had attended a secret meeting with a businessman who had offered to bribe ‘influential people’ in the new régime to secure wheat contracts.

Details of the meeting in London emerged on 15 February 2006. The inquiry would hear evidence of a massive lobbying effort by A.W.B., called Operation Hunta, to secure its wheat contracts in Iraq after the war.

Mr. Chris Whitwell, AWB’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, told the Inquiry that he had met with his boss Michael Long in London in June 2003, shortly after Mr. Long had been appointed by the Howard Government to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

Mr. Whitwell took the stand just as the Inquiry learnt for the first time of internal A.W.B. ‘market briefs’ on Iraq, spelling out that the fees A.W.B. paid for trucking wheat inside Iraq were being passed over to Saddam’s régime.

The ‘market briefs’ recorded that the fees were “approved by the U.N.”, despite no evidence this was the case.

The ‘market briefs’ would normally be sent to the government regulator, the Wheat Export Authority. But, after the Whitwell deposition, the Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, released a letter from the Authority’s chief to the effect that it had no documents spelling out the payments to the Iraq régime.

Furthermore, the Authority had received only one of the three ‘market briefs’. Critically, the one it had received did not contain the revealing information about the ‘trucking’ fees going to the Iraqi régime.

While Mr. Cole observed that the new documents would have substantially changed the examination of key witnesses before the Inquiry, A.W.B. lawyers were struggling to explain why the documents had not been produced earlier.

But even this controversy was overshadowed by revelations about A.W.B.’s operation to secure its contracts in post-war Iraq.

At least three A.W.B. figures had been appointed to the provisional government in Iraq by the Howard Government, and documents indicated that all were covertly working for Operation Hunta.

Mr. Whitwell told the Inquiry that Mr. Long had flown from Baghdad to meet him in London soon after an executive from Tigris Petroleum, Norman Davidson Kelly, had warned him that his company needed to begin receiving payments from A.W.B.

Mr. Whitwell said that Mr. Davidson Kelly had “intimated a number of influential people will need to start receiving funds and that further delays may cause difficulties going forward.”

Asked by Mr. Cole what this was code for, Mr. Whitwell replied: “It set off an amber light that this was a bribe.” (M. Wilkinson and C. Banham, Bribes offered in AWB lobbying drive, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February 2006).

Through the course of the Inquiry one was starting to see a clear picture of exactly what the people at A.W.B. believed was this ‘only way’ things had to be done.

Saddam had issued a special presidential decree demanding a US$ 12 surcharge per tonne from suppliers selling wheat to Iraq under the U.N. Oil-for-Food programme and suppliers were explicitly told: no payment, no unloading in Iraqi ports. From numerous emails and facsimiles between senior A.W.B. executives, the Iraqi directly involved – Grains Board head Zuhair Daoud and the general manager of Alia, one had come to know how A.W.B. had dealt with that demand. Rather than question the demands made of them – as the Canadian Wheat Board did – they concentrated on finding a way to facilitate the payments. It was revealed at the Inquiry that one A.W.B. executive, Dominic Hogan, the sixth A.W.B.-related witness in the stand and the second whistleblower, went as far as joking about smuggling cash in a very large suitcase, though considering the wheat for gold story, perhaps it was only half in jest. What was no joke was the course A.W.B. finally settled on, a scheme set up to meet the sanction busting demands of the Iraqi dictator: its managers engaged the bogus trucking company Alia back as a means of pass on money to Saddam Hussein. (M. Colvin, PM – 14 others knew about Iraq kickbacks: ‘AWB whistleblower,’ abc.net.au, by M. Vincent, 6 February 2006).

Speaking of the revelations at the Inquiry, Sandy Easterbrook, Chief Executive of the Centre for Corporate Law and Securities Regulation, Corporate Governance International, at the University of Melbourne, described the corporate governance of A.W.B. as a “disaster waiting to happen.” (N. Gruen, ‘A disaster waiting to happen – the AWB, clubtroppo.com.au, 22 February 2006).

David Marr and Marion Wilkinson, both journalists with The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote that the “beauty of the rort from AWB’s point of view was that Australia’s wheat farmers didn’t pay a cent. The money was all coming out of the UN’s escrow account.” (D. Marr and M. Wilkinson, Deceit by the truckload’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2006)

The Cole Inquiry delved in very great detail into the breaches by A.W.B. Mark Emons, the manager of A.W.B.’s Middle East operations, told the inquiry that he, and Dominic Hogan from A.W.B.’s Cairo office, at the very first meeting at which the prospect of certain arrangements were broached in 1999 “knew what Iraq was asking was outside the sanctions.” (D. Marr and M. Wilkinson, op. cit.).

Furthermore, the Inquiry found that A.W.B. attempted to hide and distance itself from the payments to Alia, using counter-parties and intermediaries to get the money to Alia, which in turn passed it onto the régime. The final report states that there was “no sensible basis for making these payments…at a cost to AWB, except to disguise AWB’s making of payments to Alia.” (Vol 1: Findings, Recommendations and Background, The Cole Inquiry, p. xxii).

Under Australian legislation, all shipments to Iraq were banned unless the Foreign Minister – at the time, Alexander Downer – was “satisfied that permitting the exportation will not infringe the international obligations of Australia.” (D. Marr and M. Wilkinson, op.cit.).

The U.N. investigation had not commented on whether the Australian Government should have known about the actions of the A.W.B. Through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Government knew that A.W.B. had entered into an arrangement with Alia.

The Cole Inquiry found in “secret evidence” that the ownership of Alia was known since 1998 in the departments of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Prime Minister and Cabinet, as indicated by an intelligence report from a “foreign agency.” (D. Marr and M. Wilkinson, op. cit.).

After several weeks of damning evidence from the Inquiry, the real issue in the scandal over the A.W.B.’s payment of almost AU$ 300 million worth of bribes to Saddam Hussein’s régime was not whether Prime Minister Howard and his ministers knew about the ‘kickbacks’. That was certainly proved to be the case.

Testimony and documents presented to the Inquiry had revealed nearly twenty occasions on which A.W.B. executives and various officials told senior government ministers or their advisors of the payments. Probably the most incriminating document was a declassified secret cable sent from a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer attached to the U.N. in New York warning that A.W.B. had been asked by Iraq to pay “port fees” of 50 U.S. cents a tonne and that such fees would breach U.N. sanctions.

Sent in April 2001, the cable was addressed to Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Trade Minister Mark Vaile and a raft of senior public servants from the Defence Intelligence Organisation and several government departments, including Defence and DFAT. The briefing, that the government deliberately hid from Parliament and the public for five years, made clear that the illegal “port fees” was “linked to wider concerns about circumvention of the sanctions regime.” Yet Prime Minister Howard, after initially saying he did not recall seeing the cable, then declared that there was nothing in it which should have raised alarm bells in his office. He also insisted that the cable “did not actually prove that the government knew illicit payments were being made.” (!) The truth is that Mr. Howard and his ministers had no intention of doing anything which could jeopardise lucrative Australian wheat sales to Iraq.

Prime Minister Howard’s response was in line with his government’s standard modus operandi – leave the implementation of the government’s dirty work in the hands of senior officials – in this case A.W.B. executives – and make sure that no paper trail is left of its involvement. Responsibility could then be denied on the basis that government ministers knew nothing.

Whatever evidence ultimately emerged, the real issue in the A.W.B. case was what it further demonstrated about the utter hypocrisy behind the official fabrications brought forward to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. All the time that the Australian Government was falsely accusing Saddam Hussein of breaching U.N. resolutions, it was systematically violating the U.N. Oil-for-Food programme to maintain its long and profitable relations with the Baghdad government.

It will never be known whether, on calling for the Inquiry in October 2005, Prime Minister Howard might have foreseen that he too would have been invited to testify.

On 12 April 2006 the Inquiry called him.

He appeared on 13 April. Mr. Howard was to become the first Australian prime minister to front a top-level commission – Inquiry in this case – since Prime Minister Robert Hawke testified at the Hope Royal Commission on intelligence agencies in 1983.

Howard had consistently indicated that he would have been happy to appear if sought by the Inquiry, stressing that he had nothing to hide and knew nothing about the AU$290 million in ‘kickbacks’ that the United Nations had said A.W.B. paid to Saddam Hussein.

In a brief statement issued on 12 April Prime Minister Howard said: “The Cole commission of inquiry has requested that I appear at its hearings. As I have said previously, I am happy to do so.”

Appearing before the Inquiry on 13 April Mr. Howard would have come face to face with an old acquaintance. He would, of course, have been questioned by counsel assisting the Inquiry, John Angius, S.C.

Mr. Agius had already shown during examination of Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer that he would not have hesitated to ask probing questions of the nation’s most powerful political men.

Terry Forrest, Q.C., appearing for a string of A.W.B executives, had also applied for permission to cross-examine Mr. Howard. Unlike Mr. Vaile and Mr. Downer, who both had direct ministerial responsibility for overseeing A.W.B.’s dealings, Mr. Howard might have been quizzed to the same degree about why he and his staff failed to identify ‘kickback’ payments and to stop them continuing.

Still, the Prime Minister could have expected to face awkward questions about whether he received several warnings about Iraq’s rorting of U.N. sanctions and allegations that A.W.B. might have been involved – allegations which had been cabled to his office by diplomats or supplied by intelligence agencies.

Both Mr. Downer and Mr. Vaile would struggle to explain to the Inquiry why they had not seen the intelligence data or 21 crucial cables sent to their offices. Mr. Vaile said he had no recollection of seeing the warnings and no idea why he had not seen them. Mr. Downer gave a more considered defence, offering several reasons why he had missed the warnings and saying his staff “did a good job”.

Cables sent to Prime Minister Howard’s office included the January 2000 warning from Ms. Bronte Moules, a senior member of Australia’s delegation to the United Nations, that the U.N. had received allegations from Canada of A.W.B. ‘kickbacks’ and asking the Australian Government to investigate “at a high level.”

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley repeatedly called for Prime Minister Howard to expand the Inquiry’s powers to allow findings against the Government, suggesting that the Prime Minister might have seen some of the warnings which passed through his office.

“Cables that dealt with Iraqi sanctions are cables that should have ended up on the Prime Minister’s desk,” Mr. Beazley said. “And I’ve got to tell you, I think they did.”

Mr. Howard’s office was also sent intelligence material in 2002 warning that Iraq was charging 10 per cent fees on all imports under the U.N. Oil-for-Food programme and fees were paid through Jordanian bank accounts.

The Government department Mr. Howard oversaw had been sent even more extensive intelligence. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was told in 1998 that trucking company Alia was owned by the Iraqi Government and was involved in breaching U.N. sanctions. The Department received intelligence in 2000 that ‘kickbacks’ were being disguised as “transport fees”.

The U.N.’s Volcker Report in 2005 had revealed that A.W.B. as the largest supplier of ‘kickbacks’ to Iraq – funnelling AU$290 million disguised as transport fees, through Alia, to Saddam Hussein.

The Prime Minister would quite likely have been asked about the apparently cosy relationship between the Government and A.W.B.

The Inquiry had already heard that the Government repeatedly defended the wheat exporter against allegations of improper dealings and coached its executives on how to respond to the Volcker investigators.

According to notes tendered to the Inquiry, former A.W.B. managing director Andrew Lindberg had stated in 2005 that a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Howard, Paul O’Sullivan, had advised him to keep A.W.B.’s answers to U.N. investigators “narrow” and “technical.”

“I did not know, Mr. Downer [the Foreign Minister] did not know, and on the information that I have … I do not believe that anybody in the departments were told that AWB was paying bribes.” Prime Minister Howard had told reporters on 27 January 2006.

On 13 April 2006 he would confirm: “I did not know. Mr. Downer did not know. Mr. Vaile [the Deputy P.M. and Trade Minister] did not know. And on the information that I have and based on the advice that I have received, I do not believe that anybody in the departments were told.” [Emphasis added]

Professor David Kinley, who teaches law at the University of Sydney, is a scholar of international reputation. His interests are in particular international and domestic human rights law and corporations and human rights.

During an interview he precisely, and fairly caustically, dealing with the A.W.B. scandal, observed: “With respect to the politicians, we have a Westminster system, where you have a system of ministerial responsibility; meaning that where something egregious such as this goes wrong – given the scale, nearly $300 million, given the fact that it was Iraq – means that responsibility has to rest with somebody in the ministry.

The old orthodox view of ministerial responsibility means the minister, in that case. [Emphasis added]

The fact that he may not have known what sorts of actions were being taken means that there’s a failure in the manner in which he’s being informed, a failure in the system that seems to extol the virtue of deniability, means that the minister can then – perhaps with full justification, with full truth – say, “I knew nothing about this.”

In either sense, whether he knew it or not, the system is clearly at fault here, because this is exactly the sort of thing that a scrutiny system should be picking up.

We cannot possibly think that we would want to be involved in this way, in this form, with that sort of country.” (‘AWB Iraqi scandal a warning for others,’ abc.net.au, interview with M. Condon, 18 September 2009).

One cannot help but observe that we may hear said that “we have a Westminster system” – but it is rather a ‘Wet-minister swamp’.

(It is said of President Richard Milhous Nixon that he lied with conviction).

To put it in the current jargon, it was: “Nothing here to see,” Mr. Cole.

What followed was pure formality. Mr. Cole: “Thank you, Prime Minister. You may be excused.” Mr. Howard: “Thank you, Mr. Cole.”

Once completed, the Cole Inquiry reported to the Attorney-General on 24 November 2006 and Attorney-General Philip Maxwell Ruddock tabled the report into the company’s role in the scandal on 27 November 2006. The Inquiry found that, at the insistence of the Iraq Government of Saddam Hussein, the A.W.B. agreed to pay “transportation fees” of around AU$ 290 million. Mr. Cole’s findings agreed with the U.N. Report in finding that this money was paid, often indirectly, to a Jordanian transportation company, Alia, which kept a small percentage of the fees, and paid the remainder onto the Iraqi Government. This breached the sanctions placed on the Iraqi régime. The Cole Inquiry concluded that from mid-1999, A.W.B. had knowingly entered into an arrangement which involved paying bribes to the Iraqi Government, in order to retain its business.

Continued Saturday – Our mate: Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti (part 4)

Previous instalment – Our mate: Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti (part 2)

Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.venturini@bigpond.com.au.


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